Ford supports county’s idea; other legislators waiting to hear city’s pitch

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 21, 2013

RALEIGH — N.C. Rep. Carl Ford said Wednesday he would support a bill to de-annex the Rowan County airport.
“I’ve heard some saying I’m just doing it because I’m a former county commissioner,” Ford said. “I was not elected ’05, ’06, ’07 when all of this went down. To be honest, Salisbury wants to have a meeting. I don’t have a problem with that, but nobody met with the county when they annexed it.”
Ford, who served as a Rowan County commissioner from 2008 to 2012 before being elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in November, said he helped lower the property taxes against airport tenants in 2009.
He said he’s also heard from prospective tenants who don’t want to pay the higher tax to fly out of Rowan.
Ford said he attended meetings and kept in close contact with commissioners prior to joining the board. Ford said the city never met with county officials before the initial annexation, which started in 2004.
“The county commissioners found out one night about five minutes before the meeting that it had already happened,” he said. “Nobody talked to the county or even told them, much less asked.”
Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris disagreed and said the city followed state law regarding public notification before the annexation. Paris said the city sent letters and held an informational meeting and public hearing, where five people spoke.
During an interview in Raleigh on Wednesday, Ford said he did not think the county commission’s vote to pursue de-annexation was retaliation against the city’s decision to consider borrowing money for Rowan-Salisbury School’s downtown central office building.
On Tuesday, City Council member Brian Miller accused the county of voting for de-annexation as a response to the central office decision.
“I see this as nothing more than a vindictive effort to get back at us for the decision we made regarding the central school office,” Miller said.
Ford said he hasn’t had a chance to speak with Miller but insisted “that’s not the case.”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Ford said. “We talked about this for years and just couldn’t get it.”
Also in Raleigh on Wednesday, N.C. Rep. Harry Warren said he wants to explore all options on the de-annexation issue, but said the city has to show why it deserves to keep the airport.
Warren said he has heard from Paris and Jim Sides, chairman of the Rowan commissioners, on the issue.
“My primary concern is what’s in the best interest of the airport,” Warren said. “I’m reviewing information that’s being sent to me.”
Warren intends to weigh both arguments, he said, but wants to see why the city only annexed part of the airport and how the city has used tax revenue to develop the airport in recent years.
Warren said he has extensively researched de-annexing the airport and declaring it a separate authority under a board.
But only a handful of airports equivalent to Rowan’s size in the U.S. actually do that, he said.
If they did, Warren said, he fears the airport would still have to occasionally rely on the county for non-operating costs, like matching funds for grants.
Unless swayed by other options, he said, de-annexation would be the best option.
“From the city back to the county — that appears that that would be in the best interest of the airport at this time,” Warren said.
Paris was meeting with Warren, Ford and N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock in Raleigh on Wednesday.
Paris said he didn’t ask the legislators to take a position on de-annexation but invited them to meet with City Council. All legislators agreed to attend, and the meeting is tentatively scheduled for late March.
“The city of Salisbury will make the case for why de-annexation is not in the airport’s best interest, and we will do so at the joint meeting,” Paris said.
Paris said it sounded to him as if the legislators had not yet made up their minds, and he remains “very hopeful that an agreement can be worked out on the matter that would be beneficial for all parties.”
Brock could not be reached by the Post, and N.C. Sen. Gene McLaurin’s Raleigh office said he is studying the issue and had no comment.
The idea of de-annexing the airport has been around for years. In an attempt to dissuade county commissioners from pursuing it in 2009, City Council agreed to give property tax rebates to businesses at the airport.
Sides and Craig Pierce, vice chairman of the county commission, told city officials in December 2012 that they planned to renew efforts to de-annex the airport.
City Council then offered to lower taxes at the facility again, proposing during a retreat last week to cut the airport property tax rate from 80 cents per $100 valuation to 70 cents — 35 cents each for the city and county.
That would give the Rowan County Airport the most competitive tax rate around, Paris said, less than Statesville Airport’s 89 cents and Concord Airport’s $1.18.
The city thought the county would accept the proposal, Paris said.
When the city learned commissioners were moving forward to pursue de-annexation, Paris said they “extended a second olive branch” Monday and asked commissioners to table the issue and meet with City Council.
Commissioners voted 3-1 Monday night for de-annexation.
The city stands to lose about $86,000 a year if the airport leaves Salisbury.
In 2012, the airport had a taxable value of $21.5 million, including business personal property, airplanes and airport hangars, according to the county’s tax administration office. 
Taxes charged in 2012 totaled $133,837.50 by Rowan County and $137,041 by Salisbury. But through the 2009 incentive agreement, the tax rate charged to eligible taxpayers at the airport is 40 cents for each district.
With the incentive in place, Rowan County and Salisbury each had an estimated net tax revenue of $86,000 from the airport.
At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, Paris and his staff laid out their pitch for keeping the airport in the city limits.
The city has invested about $200,000 in water and sewer extensions to the airport and delivered a competitive fire insurance rating for airport property with a nearby fire station and specially equipped fire engine, staff said.
If the airport stays in the city limits, Salisbury would pursue clean-up of soil contamination that currently prevents runway extension, staff said. The city also would consider earmarking 100 percent of its airport property tax revenue for improvements to the facility and would provide free engineering services for hangar and runway construction.

Contact reporters Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246 and Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.